This is a compelling story. I received it in an email last week as someone wanted me to know how much some of my things had touched them. But it is so much more than that. This is the honest struggle of someone who has grown up in a legalistic tradition, finding their way into what it means to live in his love. And it’s still in process even after six years. I love that. So many people want easy fixes and quick answers, but this journey really unfolds by simply following the nudges in her heart even if she didn’t understand them or they seemed scandalous, like buying a potentially heretical book from WalMart. It keeps unfolding by sorting through yet unanswered questions or not being sidetraced even by a cancer diagnosis.
With her permission, I share it with you. I love hearing how people are finding their way into the light and into Father’s freedom. I love her honesty, the reality of her struggle, and the freedom not to get to answers more quickly than Jesus gives them. I hope it encourages you wherever you are on your journey.
It’s been 6 years since I first read So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore followed by He Loves Me! a year later, and The Shack a few years after that. Even before I read the first book, God had been stirring in my heart. In the year previous to reading So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore, I was startled to realize that I didn’t really know what Jesus taught. I had been a Christian since I was 11, but the church I was a part of spoke so little of the life Jesus lived and held out to us. I didn’t know the kind of life He wanted me to live. I didn’t know the truth He taught. I didn’t know him, period.
That realization began an in depth study of the Gospels, and what I read startled and scared me. My first reading and study of the Gospels showed me how far away I was, how far away the church group I was a part of was from the life He portrayed. Coming from a fear-based religion, that realization only terrified me as I keenly realized that I did not measure up! Everything was so far away and so twisted: pride, power-hungry leaders, top-heavy organization, fear, and rules. I dimly saw that my life needed a radical change, regardless of what happened around me, but I had no idea where to start. The journey to change started with a prayer: “God, I don’t know what You are calling me to, but something in my life and the religion around me is radically wrong. I don’t know what this will require of me, but I want to know You at any cost.” I prayed that prayer with fear and trembling because I knew that such a prayer, prayed with sincerity and faith, will be answered. And I knew enough of God’s ways and my humanness to know that the journey could be long and convoluted. But I was exhausted with the life I had known until then.
Soon after, I stopped by the bookshelves at my local Walmart, as I did occasionally, to peruse the Christian/religious titles on display. The book So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore was there. Out of curiosity, I picked it up. Two hours later, after having skimmed 3/4 of it while standing in the aisle leaning on my shopping cart, I put the book back on the shelf and walked away. The book was shocking, but mentally had me saying, “Yes! YES! These are the questions I’ve been asking and the things I’ve been struggling with!” However, according to the teaching I’d received in church, the book was practically heresy! Did I dare? Was it even Biblical? I did the rest of my shopping, returned to the shelf, put the book in my cart, and then put it back on the shelf, and left. For the next few weeks I chewed on the startling thoughts I had gleaned. Finally, one day I returned to that Walmart and picked up the book, determined to read it through and discover for myself whether this was truth or heresy. So I continued my study of the Gospels, simultaneously reading So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore. I read, and I underlined, and I highlighted, and I made notes and I compared the book with the truth before me in the Scriptures.
I remember the moment my life changed. One morning, while reading and praying over chapter 3, I read this sentence: “There’s not one thing you can do to make Him love you any more today; and there’s not one thing you can do to make him love you any less, either. He just loves you.” I sat there, absolutely stunned, as all the lightbulbs came on and flashed neon. He loves me! HE LOVES ME! He loves me like that. No wonder I was so frustrated! No wonder I lived in such fear! No wonder I was terrified at all the commands I thought I was missing! No wonder my struggle with addictions got nowhere! I was trying to earn His love when I already had it! Not a single thing I could do would change His love one iota!
That was when it all changed for me. Oh, it wasn’t instantaneous! Far from it! But it was the start of my journey into the Father’s love, an amazing journey that will never end until I reach glory. There’s been so much stumbling, and learning, and growing, and changing. Since then, the journey has been largely unexpected and startling and painful and glorious all at the same time.
I’m still a part of the “church” organization I was 6 years ago when it all began. I’ve been deeply saddened, often dissatisfied, often frustrated, but so far, I’m still here, largely because I have not felt that nudge from Father saying, “I have another place for you to be.” I often think to what you said in So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore. “If he were asking you to leave today, I think you’d know that. If he hasn’t made it clear to you, then wait.” So I’ve kept waiting, meanwhile seeking to live the life He wants me to live where I am.
However, the longer I am on this journey, the more my “yuck meter” goes off lately. How do I stay in a broken organization when it takes 4 days to recover from the dose of fear and and commandments preached every Sunday? How do I stay when all around I see Christians living in fear and my heart breaks? How do I stay when what I hear on a Sunday morning is so far away from the full life the Father gives us? How do I stay when the real connections occur over Chinese eaten at a local restaurant and not in the stilted atmosphere of the Sunday service? I attend Sunday services as little as possible, attending just enough to escape reprimand for my lack of attendance, but even the little I attend is difficult, and I draw a breath of relief when I’m home again. My inner life is so disconnected from the part of the body of Christ I’ve identified with that it’s harder and harder to stay. Living with a “yuck meter” that is way off the charts is an uncomfortable place to be. I’ve been asking Father about how he wants me to live in his family. The hard part is to not look for “the” answer but to follow his pull on my heart.
One of the “convoluted” ways that God has led me over the past 6 years has been my cancer diagnosis for the last 3 1/2 years. My cancer has relapsed multiple times. I’m doing chemo for the 3rd time, radiation and a stem cell transplant already behind me. Cancer, one of the diseases that strikes fear into most people, has been an amazing journey into the Father’s affection, an amazing gift, even on the hard days. My cancer has been a unique way for me to speak of the journey Father has led me on. I was startled to learn how few of the Christians around me live with the deep assurance I have of the Father’s love for me. I was startled how many are actually afraid to die because they were scared they didn’t measure up and therefore think they aren’t worthy of heaven. I was saddened that they didn’t see death as simply a “going Home” as I do because the blood of Jesus has brought us home to Father. I was surprised how many were amazed at my honesty about the struggle of living God’s full life in the hard things of cancer and pain and the unknowns, and then I realized how little the “church” organization speaks honestly about life and the daily learning and struggle and joy of it all. Instead, we all are to present these facades that we are “good Christians” and the deep pain and struggles and questions and fears never get spoken of. It does make me laugh a little because many of the views I hold about “church” are seen as nearly heretical if I speak about them, but those same people who think it is heresy envy the relationship with Father I live in every day.
Have I stumbled? Have I sometimes lost sight of the glory of it all when it all just gets too much? Has my faith sometimes limped? Have I cried? Have I honestly “had it out” with Father during the hard times? Have I been afraid? Am I still very broken and in need of so much more change and healing? Yes, to all of those. But that’s not what matters. What matters is that I am His child and nothing can change that. What matters is that He is never done with me and what lies before can only be better yet than anything He has led me to. What matters is that when I stumble, He is carrying me and I never lose His presence, even when I’m too human or too exhausted to feel it. What matters is that this life isn’t dependent on me and how well I do it, but on Him and His life in me. What matters is that, life or death, I am secure.
All this to simply say thank you! Thank you for allowing the Father to use you and your writing as a catalyst for change in my life. Thank you for providing some of the signposts along the way. Thank you for the honest conversations in the books and blogs I’ve read and the podcasts I’ve listened to.
May Father continue to lead you, Ellen, as you awaken into the reality of the new creation as it keeps stirring in you. And I pray that as well for everyone touched by these words and seeking to follow the nudgings of the Spirit as he works in you.
If you’d like, you can reach Ellen here.